Updated 2:24 p.m.: Comments from Mayor Harry Rilling.
NORWALK, Conn. — Norwalk’s financial chief has advised Common Council members not to fund a new welcome center for Norwalk Public Schools this year. He also recommends saying “no” to funding the Silvermine Elementary School driveway, bathroom renovations and the cafeteria work that’s been planned. Instructional technology should also be a no, as far as Chief Financial Officer Henry Dachowitz is concerned.
Dachowitz, in his recommended capital budget, warned that Norwalk’s triple A bond rating would be jeopardized by adding more than $120 million to the City’s existing debt. The City is working to delay and spread out its projects, he said.
His recommendation for 2021-22 would authorize $22 million in additional bonding, a massive drop from the $153 million in borrowing authorized last year, which included approvals for a new Norwalk High School and new Cranbury Elementary School.
Importantly, he suggests that the City and Board of Education develop a joint plan to “work off” the $180 million worth of projects that have been authorized but not yet bonded. The City has “confirmed the necessity” of its projects and “the accuracy of their current expected costs and reimbursements while deferring them as much as we can,” he wrote. “We have had discussions with the Schools/Board of Education and they are conducting a similar review of their projects. This will become an ongoing annual review process.”
The Board requested $13.7 million in 2021-22 capital budget borrowing; Dachowitz recommends $1.5 million. That request included $7 million for a welcome center, $1.5 million for the Silver mine driveway $1.5 million for bathroom renovations, although NPS staff had originally suggested asking for $500,000 to begin bathroom renovations and hadn’t included the Silvermine driveway in this year’s budget.
Last year, the City approved $50 million for a new Norwalk High School and $45 million for Cranbury.
Norwalk Board of Education Chairman Colin Hosten did not reply to a Saturday email asking for a response.
“The Board of Education is having its’ facilities study reviewed as the previous study was deemed to be outdated,” Mayor Harry Rilling said Monday. “We will consider the capital needs of the BOE based on the current situation. Certain projects may be delayed but there are no plans to eliminate any projects unless the new study recommends doing so.”
Process – with a public hearing Wednesday
Rilling said the “capital budget is still a work in progress.”
“Mr. Dachowitz’s recommendation is just that: a recommendation. The budget must be presented to the Planning Commission, which will review and perhaps modify as they see fit. It will then be returned to me for my final review,” Rilling wrote.
The Commission’s capital budget public hearing on the is the next step in the process, at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
- Dachowitz presents his recommendations personally to the Planning Commission on Thursday Feb. 11.
- The Planning Commission transmits its recommendations to Mayor Rilling on or before Friday March 5.
- Rilling sends his recommendations to the Board of Estimate and Taxation on or before Monday March 15.
- The Common Council votes on or before Thursday April 15. Expect it at the Tuesday April 13 meeting.
Dachowitz’s letter went to the Common Council, the Board of Estimate and Taxation and Rilling.
In addition to the school projects mentioned above, Dachowitz recommends against borrowing money to fund improvements for Freese Park improvements and the Broad River baseball complex. But Dachowitz says yes to $225,000 for safe routes to schools, $500,000 for traffic signal enhancements and $350,000 for the intersection of West, Belden and Mott Avenues.
- $500,000 for air conditioning in schools (NPS requested $750,000)
- 0 for health building upgrades (the Norwalk Health Department requested $31,000)
- $645,030 for City technology (that IT request would be fully funded under this recommendation)
- $200,000 for City Hall repairs ($400,000 was requested)
- $120,000 for school and park playgrounds (Recreation and Parks requested $260,000)
- $620,000 for turf softball (that’s the entire amount requested by Recreation and Parks)
- $500,000 for watercourse maintenance (Public Works requested $3.5 million)
- 0 for the Broad River baseball complex (Recreation and Parks requested $2.5 million)
- $325,000 for Calf Pasture Beach (Recreation and Parks requested $700,000)
- 0 for Freese Park (Recreation and Parks requested $400,000)
- 0 for ADA compliance (Human Relations and Fair Rent requested $80,000)
- 0 for instructional technology (NPS requested $1,456,700)
- 0 for the Norwalk Public Library ($113,000 had been requested)
Norwalk Public Library Board of Trustees Chairman Alex Knopp reacted to Dachowitz’ recommendation Sunday, writing:
“In recognition of the City’s financial situation, the Library exercised great self-restraint to submit only two minimal program-related requests totaling $113,000 compared to all the other city departmental requests totaling $54,500,000! I’m disappointed that these two minor requests were not recommended because they both are merely continuations of on-going projects that were funded in prior years, including the final year of digitization of The Norwalk Hour and the technology refresh of the Main Branch auditorium to enable real-time streaming of programs. My concern is that failure to fund these projects will impair the library’s ability to provide the kind of top-notch on-line and digital services that our patrons have a right to expect during this era of social distancing. We’ll certainly be asking the Planning Commission, the Mayor and the Common Council not to neglect these very modest requests of the library.”
School computers, baseball, beach parking explained to Commissioners
The instructional technology request includes money to replace computers for students, now that NPS has moved to a one-to-one policy, one computer per child, Chief of Digital Learning and Development Ralph Valenzisi told the Planning Commission last week.
The yearly replacement of computers should be part of NPS’ operating budget but “in order to get this started for the first year, we do need it out of capital,” he said.
The design for a Broad River baseball complex was completed last year, Director of Recreation and Parks Nick Roberts told the Planning Commission. It’s a three field layout with concession stands, a restroom, lights and a replacement playground. While it was originally estimated to cost $2.5 million, “it’s a much bigger size and scale project” with a $5 million pricetag, he said.
Facing pushback from Planning Commission Chairwoman Frances DiMeglio, Roberts added that it would have additional parking and the third field would be for championships and tournaments. The tennis court would be eliminated in a decision made by the Parks and Rec Committee, he said.
The $700,000 requested for Calf Pasture Beach would remill and pave the parking lots at both Calf Pasture and Shady Beach, with striping to create additional resident-only parking spaces in the main lot, Roberts said.
“With the with the increased number of residents moving to the area and the buildings and everything else, we think it’s important to add additional resident parking spaces there,” he said.
Numbers add up to ‘delay, spread it out’
Dachowitz said the City would be unlikely to maintain its AAA rating with a debt level of more than $400 million.
Norwalk has about $28 million in bonds outstanding and $180 million in “authorized but unbonded projects,” he said, listing $108 million in school projects and $72 million in City projects.
So, $180 million has been authorized but not bonded for, but spending more than $120 million would put the AAA rating in danger, according to Dachowitz.
“The challenge has been, ‘How do we pay for all the previously authorized projects as well as the estimated $20-30MM annual capital requirements while maintaining our AAA bond rating?’” he wrote. “To avoid eliminating or cutting the budgets of projects, we decided that delaying and spreading out the projects over the coming 10 years would allow us to finish all the projects and retain our AAA rating.”
As you pay off bonds you free up about $20 million a year to spend on other projects, he said. Combining that with the $120 million limit gives you $320 million of spending, “but only if we spread out the project expenditures over a 10 year period.”
He wrote, “The City has to ensure that proper funding is made to all areas of the city – not just the schools but also the roads, law enforcement and fire departments, parks, safety and compliance with regulations, maintenance of our many buildings, water pollution control, economic development, community services, transportation and parking, etc.”